Responding to political pressure, PM asks bureau chief to hold discussions over the creation of an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, file recommendations within 60 days.

Bowing to pressure from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated Sunday that the original government plan to create a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall will be modified.

In a statement, the prime minister’s office said: “Following the [cabinet] decision, several difficulties arose. We are working to resolve them.”

The Prime Minister’s Bureau chief David Sharan will oversee discussions between the opposing sides and present recommendations for reconciling their differences within 60 days, the statement said.

The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties had notified Netanyahu in recent weeks that they opposed the plan, which was meant to allow the Reform and Conservative movements to hold mixed prayer services for both men and women at a newly designated area at the southern expanse of the Jewish holy site. 

Minister of Religious Affairs David Azoulay had refused to sign the regulations that would have moved the plan forward.

The leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements have warned that they will not accept any changes to the original plans. If such changes are forced on them, they have said they will petition the Supreme Court and demand that a prayer space be allocated to them in the existing northern expanse of the Western Wall.

According to the plan, approved by the government in January, representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements will sit on a board of governors that will supervise the new area.  The ultra-Orthodox parties have been particularly resistant to granting such authority to the non-Orthodox movements.

When the plan was announced earlier this year, it was hailed as historic and welcomed by Reform and Conservative leaders.

Responding to Sunday’s announcement by the prime minister’s office, Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, said: “We trust the prime minister and are confident that the plan, which was approved by the government by a majority vote, will be fully implemented, to the last word.

“If, heaven forbid, it is not, this would be a nightmare scenario from a Jewish and Zionist perspective. It would even be a strategic, fatal and unprecedented blow to the status of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who heads the Reform movement in Israel, warned that if the plan was not fully implemented, Israel could face a huge crisis with Diaspora Jewry.

“We call on the prime minister to make clear to his ultra-Orthodox partners that the unity of the Jewish people and the connection between the state of Israel and world Jewry cannot be held captive to street battles within the ultra-Orthodox community,” he said, “and to take a clear and public stand against the continued incitement of ultra-Orthodox politicians against millions of Reform Jews.”

Judy Maltz

Haaretz Correspondent